On the occasion of receiving a prize first awarded to Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945), Hans Blumenberg assesses Cassirer’s legacy and influence. Blumenberg underlines Cassirer’s contribution to epistemology in the neo-Kantian tradition as well as his pioneering work in the history of ideas before discussing how his celebrated Philosophy of Symbolic Forms led Cassirer to reappraise the problem of history more generally. Blumenberg reads Cassirer as having tried to establish the independence of history with regard to the imperatives of the present and from this derives a defense of his own idea of historicism, which Blumenberg understands as the claim to equal consideration by historians on the part of those eras, peoples, and subjects that may not serve present interests. Historians must be aware of the contingency of their own position and preserve the memory even of those aspects of humanity that fail to meet their criteria of progress.

If you will permit me to steer clear of the obvious—that is, addressing the last recipient of the Kuno Fischer Prize and the body of work thus honored1—I shall instead cleave to something only slightly less obvious: to speak in memory of its first recipient. To do so is obvious not least because in a few days, on July 28, we should have occasion to commemorate the one hundredth birthday of Ernst Cassirer. It is exactly sixty years ago that Cassirer became the first recipient of this prize, which was founded in 1904.2

Please be assured that I shall not read out an essay in commemoration of somebody whom I never even knew personally. I should much prefer to inquire into the state of that matter which was important to the man and whose association with which was accorded prominence by awarding him the prize. We must ask, that is to say, how his conception of the historiography of philosophy has fared. Did he—and if so, how—put his own twist on that great maxim of Kuno Fischer himself, whose name this prize bears and who, in his “History of Philosophy as a Science,”3 claimed that to engage in the history of philosophy was already to philosophize?

When Cassirer was awarded the prize, the first two volumes of what was to become his four-volume history of the problem of knowledge (The Problem of Knowledge: Philosophy, Science, and History since Hegel, 1906–50)4 had already run to their second editions. Nonetheless, the further course of his thought is determined by the very decline of epistemology as the theme at the core of philosophy. Though as late as 1929, in his debate with Martin Heidegger at Davos, Cassirer could say, “I do not conceive of my own development as a defection from Cohen,”5 he added that to him, mathematical natural science no longer stood for the whole, but merely its paradigm.

We have reason to follow in Cassirer’s intellectual biography the all-encompassing process that is this loss of the primacy of epistemology. This process denotes an elementary shift in the relations between philosophy and the sciences. The desire for reassurance from which all theory of knowledge springs could not but change in proportion to the increasing difficulty of still making theoretical certainty the central concern of thought at a time when everything else seemed more uncertain than knowledge. Especially to the kind of reflection that is far from being historically unsophisticated, the time-honored question of what we can know becomes increasing transformed into another, which asks what it even was that we wanted to know. What is more, the repercussions of science on the lifeworld had intensified to the point at which it seems surprising that anyone should doubt the demonstrability of scientific theories. In each technological push of a button is the reliability of science manifested, even where what it produces or enables is perceived as threatening. Such trivial experiences were alien to Kant and indeed still largely to the neo-Kantians, to whom the mechanism of the heavens and the sporadic sensations of confirmation it yielded were the prototype of theoretical vindication.

Cassirer’s first major theme was thus a monumental historical obituary, but as such, it refused to join in the denigration: through its history and the comprehensive and conclusive gaze cast on it, the theory of knowledge becomes the thread to guide historical-theoretical reflection.

Cassirer’s second major theme was the theory of concept formation, which he elaborated in what to this day remains, to my mind, a work that has yet to be fully understood and nonetheless has been largely and unjustly forgotten: Substance and Function of 1910.6Forgotten is an apposite word in considering Cassirer’s influence or lack thereof in its astonishing proportions. For fifteen years Cassirer taught at a university that could safely be called “unphilosophical,” though I speak in the past tense so as not to make a benchmark of my experience of two years in a Hamburg chair.7 Nonetheless, his time at Hamburg compelled Cassirer’s thought—and this was by no means against his own inclinations—to take on an aptitude for the world [Weltfähigkeit] by which he, alone among all the German emigrants to the United States, exerted an influence palpable to this day, the unrivaled organ of which is the Journal of the History of Ideas.

In Hamburg there was the Warburg Library, a singular dossier of the undiscovered. The library’s theory, if one may say so, and later that of the eponymous institute, was Cassirer’s three-volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms  (1923–29).8 It may be that this system of symbolic function was the keystone of the intentions, implicit or explicit, of neo-Kantianism as such, according to which the table of categories of natural objects is to be considered merely a special case of the system of categories of cultural objects, among which, in the end, the methodically prepared objects of nature once again reappear. Yet the effect of the mesh of symbolic forms and its vertical structure was to open up a new world of objects and topics to philosophical theory, or to discover new ways by which they might be distinguished and integrated.

Putting to the test the performance of the concept of symbolic forms led Cassirer to consider noncanonical, exotic, and obscure material. The ubiquity of the symbolic form is the impossibility of prelogical primitivity. Cassirer was fascinated by Hermann Usener’s notion of “momentary gods” [Augenblicksgötter],9 in which he saw exemplified the elementary achievements of name giving and system formation. It was henceforth to be impossible to make scientific progress the indicator of all differentiation of consciousness, as is proved by the comprehensive reappraisal of findings made by linguistics, ethnography, and the history of religion. History appears as but one of the relations in which what is foreign may be perceived as something potentially our own. Time and space are accorded equal rank as the dimensions of this fundamental experience, from which arises the task of seeing and assessing what is foreign not by measure of what we consider our own, nor the past by measure of the present.

Accordingly, the historian of philosophy continued to deepen his study of the seemingly obscure. Light was cast on the no-man’s-land that the philosophy of history left behind between Scholasticism and Cartesianism in Cassirer’s book on the Renaissance (The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy , 1927);10 moreover, it was dignified as a worthy subject of understanding. Something similar applies to the account of the Platonism of the Cambridge school (The Platonic Renaissance in England , 1932).11

For its part, the theory of symbolic forms is rooted in everyday—that is, no longer scientific—experience. Yet what is brought to mind in this everyday experience is seen through the medium of Gestalt psychology. Cassirer wanted to consider the “intuitive world,”12 its phenomena of expression, as the foundation of all theoretical achievements, and the latter only as the execution of the former. That, however, is too easily said to be able to dispel the suspicion of its being the most difficult thing indeed. It is the theme to which Edmund Husserl, at nearly the same time, was led under the rubric of “life-world.”13 In turning to this subject, Husserl finally eliminated the neo-Kantian element from his philosophy: the beginning of philosophizing cannot lie in reducing everything to a single fact, even if that fact is science. The lifeworld is not “all that is the case.”14 Indeed, it is quite possibly nothing of what is the case. But can what it is be grasped and described in the mode of scientificity without moderating the object down to the objecthood of science?

No less than for the phenomenological “lifeworld,” an uneasy question arises with regard to Cassirer’s de facto departure from the premises of neo-Kantianism according to the criterion of the world of intuition and expression: Was it really possible to leave behind the teleology of neo-Kantianism in the direction of norm-regulated scientificity by transferring the ideal of the categories to the theory of symbolic forms? It is all very well in retrospect to measure the degree to which this task, ever susceptible to despair, failed. A harder task is nonetheless to perceive the extent to which its completion was approached. Yet more important still is not to lose sight of the liability it imposes, which no degree of failure can mitigate.

There is a mismatch to be found in Cassirer’s work between the autonomous value of each discrete system of symbolic forms—myth, language, religion, art—and the consistent intentionality of the overall system, which is directed toward knowledge of a kind resembling science and its unsurpassable finality. To make this observation is not to doubt science as a factor in progress. I find such doubt, so widespread today, to be reckless and improper, but also self-defeating, for it can only ever appear in the form of science. But is the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms ultimately not just a history of science, albeit expanded in both space and time? Which is to say: does it not see in the purpose of knowledge the suspension of all other purposes of world-understanding as mere preliminaries?

That we should be able to notice this focus at all is something we owe to the philosophical process, to which such different minds as Dilthey, Simmel, Husserl, Cassirer, and Heidegger each contributed in his fashion. In his work, in attempting to make an exit from neo-Kantianism, Cassirer himself created the aspect in which we can still recognize in him what we ourselves will be accused of a few decades hence: that the present remains the salient point, the criterion that serves to justify the newly presented phenomena and indeed history all the way back to its mythical horizons. This may not describe Cassirer’s optics in points of detail or regional description, but it does apply to his overall construction. It would be wrong to assume facile airs of superiority. Not only those who speak of progress, but no less those who would find the last redoubt against antihistoricism in instrumentalizing all “the plenitude of the past to enlighten the present” have not yet thought any differently by so much as a jot. They have only put it another way.

What remains to be learned from Cassirer resides precisely in what he did not succeed in yet is discernible as an urgent impulse throughout his life’s work and beyond: not to make the history of philosophy, of the sciences, of the systems of symbolic forms subservient to the self-confirmation of present states, to the criterion of success—or indeed to their relevance to consciousness formation. Nowhere did Cassirer let us know whether it was as a Kantian that he resisted—successfully or not—the imperative to use humanity, even in a single person, as a means to an end, even to that of functionalizing history with a view to the present’s need for topical relevance. Yet this is nothing if not an ethos of understanding, one that refuses to limit itself to validating history’s mechanisms of selection, valuable though they may be. This ethos, so proper to the historian, denies that any present state might ever be something like the goal of history or the preferred means by which such a goal might be approached. It is this ethos that demolishes [destruieren] the mediatization of history. And we are better off for it, for there being no goal to history preserves us from remaining in “anticipation” of such a goal, of being a means subservient to its fulfillment. Ideas of the kind that seek to promote “the Education of the Human Race”15 defend the meaning of history at the expense of those born too early already to be “well-brought-up.”

Christian dogmatics, though never shy of positing that salvation might be forfeit, could nonetheless not bear the contingency of the moment at which redemption was brought to the world. The wonderful mythologem that is [the phrase] descensus ad inferos16 was the means by which foregoing generations were made to benefit from the belated salvatory act.

What today touches a distinct nerve is the arrogance of those who simultaneously inhabit the space of a world grown narrow, the right of the firstborn claimed by those comfortable in progress over the unfortunate in need of a helping hand. In the dimension of time, it is taken as an obvious form of self-understanding that progress, putative though it may be, inevitably causes earlier generations to fall behind later ones, and that every temporal guise under which the cunning of reason appears includes and demands indifference toward all intermediate and transitional stages, and not least toward the present as such a stage.

Ethnography has long proscribed an attitude that remains commonplace in the history of science: to make the point in time and space at which the observer stands the reference point for the facts selected and the judgments passed—though we are only gradually coming to understand the pervasiveness of ethnocentrism. In Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Race et histoire (1952),17 structural anthropology went too far in its acceptance of the postulate of descriptive equality, to the point even of conceiving of history as the mere cumulation of heterogeneous ethnic and cultural substrata and, in doing so, allowing time to fade into unreality. The history of science has almost always joined in the mockery of those who were proved right. But what about Sizzi, Magini, and Cremonini, of whom we so often hear as not wanting to look through Galileo’s telescope or, when they did, claiming to see reflections rather than the moons of Jupiter?18 They were quite right, for looking through Galileo’s telescope is worth nothing if done but once. That those were not reflections is something that cannot be perceived but only observed by the regularity with which their positions shift over the course of days and weeks, and finally removed from doubt by predicting their constellations. So overcome was Galileo by the heliocentric analogy of what he saw that he did not even offer his opponents that verification of reality. To the history of philosophy, the character of Simplicio in Galileo’s Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems is no longer just an amusing personage but a polemical caricature. The history of science, which by its subject is tied to the notion of success, finds itself in awkward straits when it comes to according respect to those who have fallen into obscurity.

Such inequity in the dimension of time may no longer be of concern to those whom time has passed over. But it corrupts in a more subtle and pervasive fashion, regardless of who might be its agent. It is manifested above all in mediatizing the past for the benefit of the present, of a present and its demands of relevance and measures of timeliness, which give a hearing only to what can claim palpable relevance for that present. Perhaps history really does have lessons to teach us—or perhaps not. That is a secondary consideration when set against the elementary obligation of forsaking nothing that is human.

I have always felt the charge of “historicism” to be an honor. I reject the idea that it should be our “interest” and our interest alone that is entitled to motivate and give legitimacy to our understanding in time and space. The aborigines of Patagonia or the Kwakiutl, who have so recently been dignified with scholarly attention,19 have a right not just to be allowed to live but also not to be theoretically forgotten by those who engage in theory, that is, to see their share in humanity respected and preserved in their persons.

Of course, such an officium nobile [noble office] derives from our having theory as an attitude, as a capacity for perception, in the first place. Under this admittedly historical condition, however, we quite literally have “no choice.” It may be that we can discard this officium which has come down to us through history, but we cannot do so as we may choose, in parts, without falling prey to the corruption of clinging to what some “interest” or other might have us preserve. It is not a matter of our choosing but of the claim to which we are subject that we should preserve and remain aware of the ubiquity of the human. It is precisely by thinking we know what is important and worth knowing “to us” in time and space that we fall prey to the precondition that we wished to avoid, that of the arbitrariness of the knowable.

The religious and metaphysical tradition of the idea of immortality, all the way to Kant’s postulate, has led to be obscured and forgotten what was contained in such old institutions as gloria [glory] and memoria [memory], and negatively even in that most terrible one, damnatio memoriae:20 a claim to remembrance, not just of the active but no less of the passive kind, to the contemporaneity of those who are themselves noncontemporaries, to the effort of not capitulating before the contingency of time and space. “Humankind” is not some sort of super subject, for there is no way of integrating oneself into this universale. Antihistoricism, in its various iterations, is the attempt at least to forget the contingency of one’s own position in time, to simulate—since it cannot be fulfilled—the postulate of equality in time. That, it should be added, is the best-case scenario, for it may also occur that history [Geschichte] is pushed aside by a story [Geschichte]. Those who speak against history may not wish it to be known straight away what story it is that they are for. To live with the vexation to which the contingency of time and space gives rise means not only to forgo the use of the present and its proximate future as a yardstick but at the same time to retain the indelible consciousness of its unbearableness.

Continuing to engage in the history of philosophy and furthermore the history of science can only be one form of making a claim to the respect of those who are yet to come—by extending that respect to those who preceded us.

Originally published as “Ernst Cassirers gedenkend: Rede bei Entgegennahme des Kuno-Fischer-Preises der Universität Heidelberg im Juli 1974,” Revue internationale de philosophie 28, no. 11 (1974): 456–63; from Hans Blumenberg, Wirklichkeiten in denen wir leben: Aufsätze und eine Rede (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1981), 163–72. Translated with the kind permission of Bettina Blumenberg. The bracketed footnotes have been added by the translator.

Notes

1.

[Wilhelm Nestle received the Kuno Fischer Prize for an outstanding work in the history of philosophy in 1947 for his book Vom Mythos zum Logos ; Hans Blumenberg was the first recipient after a twenty-seven-year hiatus, during which the prize was not awarded.]

2.

[Ernst Cassirer received the prize in 1914.]

4.

[Cassirer, Erkenntnisproblem, 4 vols.; only the fourth volume is available in English: Problem of Knowledge .]

7.

[Blumenberg was professor of philosophy at the University of Hamburg from 1958 to 1960.]

8.

[Cassirer, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, 3 vols.; 4 vols. in English, the last volume a collection of drafts.]

12.

[This term appears frequently in Cassirer, for instance, Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, 1:111.]

15.

[Lessing, Education, originally published in 1780.]

16.

[“The Harrowing of Hell,” that is, Christ’s descent into hell one night after his crucifixion to free the souls of the righteous trapped since the creation of the world. See on this topic Blumenberg, Matthäuspassion, 57, 149, 252.]

18.

[See on this topic Blumenberg, Genesis, 657–74.] 

19.

[This may refer to Erich Fromm’s Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), in which the Kwakiutl First Nation forms a case study.]

20.

[“Condemnation of memory,” that is, the Roman practice of ordering someone’s removal from official records.]

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